By Jamie Fenton, Young New Zealander of the Year
Scientists in New Zealand appear to be popular. Both of the Kiwi bank New Zealanders of the year have been scientists; Sir Ray Avery in 2010, and Professor Sir Paul Callaghan in 2011. Both men, along with Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, are the three most trusted people in New Zealand.
The Coca-Cola Amatil Young New Zealander of the Year last year was Dr Divya Dhar, M.D., a young woman of a scientific background. I am someone who has seen how even a small amount of scientific knowledge can have benefits. I was awarded the title of Young New Zealander of the Year 2011 chiefly as a result of a series of fortunate opportunities that arose from my interests in Science.
It therefore interests me, as a teenager, to listen to the opinion of my peers when it comes to ‘what science is like’. With both my parents coming from a scientific background and my Dad in particular being a secondary school science teacher, I grew up with science being an integral part of my ‘culture’.
When I was five or so I new a sure fire way to delay being told to go to sleep at night would be to ask Dad to tell me something about science. I felt that knowing about how atoms work was as much part of a young child’s education as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. At my house as well as dressing up and writing plays my friends would acid-test with baking soda or make and play with silly putty.
And so, as someone immersed in what could best be called a scientific cultural base when I was very young, I was always baffled by people who would say that they thought science was hard or boring. I thought punnett squares, differentiation and the periodic table of elements were the epitome of cool, and would spend my lunch times teaching them to my friends. Fellow students and even teachers who found science boring were about as unfathomable to me as kids who hadn’t read Harry Potter. I passed School Certificate Science when I was eight years old simply because I was interested in it. And I did this for no reason other than because I thought that science was cool.
The students I have known who excel at science were the ones who were like my friends and I- people for whom science (or maths for that matter) is far more important a school mark or a career choice. The students I knew who enjoyed and excelled at science in my schools were the ones with the passion for the subject, who indulged their interests out of school hours, building robots or modeling biochemical folding or building laser guns for no particular practical purpose at all. A similar project of mine was a traffic meter which measures the level of sounds in classrooms which is currently being produced by the National Foundation for the Deaf.
These students who pursued science for its own sake were not always the students gaining excellences or scholarships in exams either. But they possessed the self sufficiency and the passion required to pursue scientific or technological inquiries for their own sake, without any assessment criteria or peer recognition to motivate them. They didn’t take science because to get good school marks or because they had a particular career in mind. They did it because, to them, science was cool.
This mindset appears to be in danger. According to “Inspired by Science“, a paper commissioned by the Royal Society and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, increasing numbers of students are losing interest in science by the middle years of schooling, and dropping science as a subject once it is no longer compulsory.
By the time students reach their teens, for too many of them science is not seen as a desirable subject choice because it is ‘hard’ and ‘boring’. People do not take science as a filler subject because it is perceived to be easier to gain excellences in ‘softer’ subjects such as the humanities. Those who feel that they must struggle through a science curriculum which is ‘hard’ and ‘boring’ will not go on to become the dynamic and passionate scientifically literate people we need in a number of areas; medicine and engineering, business, government, science, and education, amongst others.
It is important to capitalize on the current positive view of our scientists to promote the science as a discipline amongst our young people. The culture of science is a hand’s-on, questioning one, which cannot be absorbed from a classroom. We must have greater numbers of students and people for whom science is more than just a difficult subject at school. To do this we need more than new science curriculums and a push towards taking science as a subject in secondary schools. Promoting scientific literacy in primary schools before students reach the age where they have acquired a negative attitude towards science is important. So is the vitality of extra curricular activities such as the Science Fair where students are free to pursue science as a hobby for themselves, without the pressure to conform to a certain assessment plan. Positive role models and mentors in science are needed to provide students with a positive vision of science. The most trusted list provides a good start.
But above all, the ‘cool’ factor needs to be preserved.
Jamie Fenton is studying journalism at Western Institute of Technology.